Government Declassifies Court Opinions About Surveillance Violations

The government on Wednesday made public portions of three secret court opinions detailing government violations of surveillance rules, in which some Americans’ electronic communications were swept up over a three-year period.The partially-redacted opinions, issued in 2011 and 2012, concern the National Security Agency’s violation of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs the targeting of non-U.S. persons outside U.S.

Here’s what happened, in plain language. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court oversees some of the NSA’s activities. In 2011, the court found that, for technical reasons, the government was collecting some domestic electronic communications it isn’t allowed to collect. Some reports are putting the number of Americans’ emails collected because of the program in the tens of thousands.

As a result, the court determined that the “minimization” procedures — the way the government deals with communications it isn’t supposed to have — for some communications were breaking the rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the same time, the court found that, in NSA-speak, the “targeting and minimization procedures” concerning the same communications did not satisfy the Fourth Amendment.

“In response, and as discussed in the other opinions being released, the Government developed, and the Court approved, more stringent minimization procedures containing additional protections for U.S. person information collected as part of this discrete subset,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a written statement announcing the orders’ release.

Clapper authorized the declassification of the opinions, along with other documents, in an attempt back up claims made by the Obama administration and intelligence officials about the level of oversight of National Security Agency surveillance activity, and to show how the agency self-corrected a problem it reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In conjunction with the release of the court opinions, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Wednesday also launched a new Tumblr and Twitter account, intended to provide “immediate, ongoing and direct access to factual information related to the lawful foreign surveillance activities carried out by the U.S. Intelligence Community.” In addition to the court opinions, the ODNI also announced the release of a number of other documents, including testimony given by intelligence officials to Congressional intelligence committees.

Read all the documents here.